After 2+ years of needing to distance yourself from team members and/or work remotely or become Zoom and Teams masters — people are returning to offices in full force. So how do you manage this transition? How do you encourage workplace collaboration between people used to working independently, maybe never even meeting their supervisors or supervisees in person until now?
Below are a series of tips for smoothing that process and encouraging your employees to find a new balance and rhythm:
1. Create a slower pace for re-integration — While many employees are very excited to be around others again and in a collaborative environment, some are not. One of the best ways to ensure overall workplace harmony and integration is to realize everyone has a different pace and comfort level working in the same office/building/space again. You may be encouraging everyone to come back to work but give employees some flexibility if they decide they need a slightly different workplace layout, access to ventilation or windows or even periods of remote work — the most comfortable workers are the most productive.
2. Reconsider your work space — When COVID lockdowns forced everyone into remote work mode, many workplaces were essentially abandoned with old configurations left in place. As your team re-enters a communal work setting, examine how spaces were previously organized; this gradual return to work affords the opportunity to pause and think about your setup — Is now the time to abandon divided offices and move into flexible workstations? Are pods a better fit for teams working together? Examine all your options and be sure to gather team member input as you potentially switch things up.
3. (re) Get to know each other — Your employees returning to work likely have existing friendships and relationships with each other — But in many cases they have not seen each other in person for a long period of time. Encourage potential off-site team building where employees can just catch up with each other, discuss their lives and share a little bit of the common bond they have with each other as co-workers going through an incredibly trying time.
4. Let new kids on the block feel included — A huge percentage of workplaces added employees during COVID that never even went into the office or facility; people never met their boss, bosses never even met their new hires in person. As people return to the workplace, newer hires may feel extra left out from established teams so encourage things like a “new employee” lunch that might have happened if hiring was done under normal circumstances — Even if that employee has now worked there for an extended period of time!
5. Work through issues together — Even if you have a plan in place for welcoming everyone back to the workplace, inevitably there will be hiccups. The best-laid plans may be upended by unforeseen circumstances forcing you to re-think your approach. One of the best ways to ensure your team is able to collaborate successfully as you make modifications is to encourage interaction and collective problem-solving. Solicit and evaluate advice from everyone, management to the newest employee, on how to solve an issue. For example, a newer, lower-level employee may have a brilliant solution to a space planning issue that you never considered.
6. Be transparent — While you are focused on your employees’ needs and transition to a fuller workplace, be honest with your staff about the issues you may be facing personally, your own challenges, concerns and areas where you could use input or support. A collaborative workplace involves the entire team and that includes support for the boss.
7. Share what you learned during remote work/learning — Most people are ready to put the anxiety of the past two years behind them and return to a more ‘normal’ environment. However, everyone experienced the pandemic in their own unique way and had specific challenges and opportunities and ideas that arose. Did you develop a great tip for staying focused at home? Discover a must-have productivity tool? Figure out a way to keep your kids on track? Consider either creating a shared “what I learned” tips kind of document or host a brown-bag lunch where everyone brings something positive or learned to share with others.
8. Fun is a team builder and stress reliever — A return to the workplace means a return to many of the things people look forward to with their coworkers. Encourage group lunches or post-work Happy Hours or weekend activations. Company softball team been benched for the last two years? This is a perfect time to bring it back and allow everyone to enjoy a fun activity across all teams and rebuild some of that collaborative spirit lost during the extended work from home or alternating days in the office!